This semester, graduate students across the country will return to the same old routine of shuttling from the library to the lecture hall, hitting the archives in the afternoon and dozing off over a stack of half-graded papers by dusk. But they may be due for a reward worth a lot more than their tuition remission: validation of their work from the nation’s highest authority on labor rights.
Late last year, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) finally agreed to review the cases of Columbia University and New School graduate students who have been campaigning for years to form an official union on their campus. Their pending decision could overturn a precedent that has hamstrung labor organizing on private college and university campuses for over a decade.
Columbia graduate organizer Lindsey Dayton—part of the group organizing to join GWC-UAW 2110—is gratified they’ve pressed their case to the national level, while acknowledging that having their labor rights recognized shouldn’t have to be this hard. “We’re pretty confident that the board, as it stands now, will restore our right to collective bargaining,” she tells The Nation. “But we’re also very disappointed in Columbia’s response, which has been to hire superexpensive anti-labor lawyers to drag out this entire process and not to recognize our union.”
The ruling that the NLRB is set to revisit, for Brown University in 2004, centered on the question of whether graduate students who are employed by their university have the right to collectively bargain. The NLRB ruled in that case, by a 3-2 vote, that graduate students who work for their universities are not actually workers, and therefore don’t have collective-bargaining rights as defined under federal labor law. By defining graduate employees outside the scope of standard labor rights in the private sector, the NLRB largely foreclosed organizing at private campuses for the next 12 years. Graduate students pushing for collective-bargaining rights would have to seek voluntary recognition. Since unionization was thus placed at the administration’s discretion, only one private institution, New York University, has formed a full-fledged graduate union, and only after a long, relentless organizing campaign that later evolved into an arduous contract battle.